Sociologist says expectations for marriage are too high

Amidst discussions about the number of adult Americans who are married, a sociologist says part of the problem is that American’s expectations for marriage are too high:

Mary Laner thinks that we expect too much. A professor of sociology at Arizona State University, Laner says that when the marriage or the partner fails to live up to our ideals, we don’t recognize that our expectations were much too high. Instead, we blame our spouse or that particular relationship…

The ASU sociologist studied the marital expectations of unmarried college students. She compared their expectations with those of people who have been married for about 10 years. The significantly higher expectations held by the students, she says, come straight out of the “happily ever after” fantasy…

Laner believes that the only way those expectations will change is through education. But that will be a tough order. Laner teaches a Courtship and Marriage class at ASU. The results of a recent study revealed that even her own class had a minimal effect on lowering expectations in unmarried young adults.

“This college course is a drop in the bucket compared to what students really need,” Laner says. “We don’t adequately prepare anyone for marriage, even though we know that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the population is going to be married.

It is interesting to think that college might be the only or last place where students have an opportunity to think more realistically about marriage. I imagine that some people may not like this since it suggests the education system should take on another task that could be left to families or other institutions but if Laner is correct, there is a need for talk about marriage. Laner is suggesting that American society needs more systematic ways to “pull back the curtain” on marriage.

I wonder if part of this has to do with the emphasis on youth today and less interest in learning from older adults in society. There are plenty of people who have been married and have had both positive and negative experiences that others could learn from. However, this knowledge is not getting passed down, perhaps because younger Americans don’t want to hear it or because older Americans don’t want to share it.

Where exactly are younger Americans getting their information about marriage? Are or have there been any popular TV shows or movies that have more realistically portrayed marriage?

Older age = more wisdom, happiness

In a youth-oriented culture like that of the United States, growing older may not appear appealing to many. But recent research suggests that growing older leads to more wisdom and increased levels of happiness:

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness — “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively” — crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

These are interesting findings. Now how could American culture go about showing and sharing these benefits of growing old? Wisdom, in particular, might be a challenge to portray in commercial advertisements.

Also, there is an interesting discussion in the article about how to define and measure “wisdom.”